Monthly Archives: April 2014

Donors will pay for transition in Atlanta school leadership

Private donations will pay for incoming Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen to begin working immediately, though she doesn’t officially take over the city school system for two more months.

The Atlanta Board of Education voted unanimously Tuesday to approve a resolution allowing Carstarphen to form a transition team and prepare for leadership of the 50,000-student district.

Board Chairman Courtney English said he plans to raise between $500,000 and $1 million from business and philanthropic organizations to compensate Carstarphen and her team for their interim work.

He said soliciting outside contributions will prevent draining money from Atlanta Public Schools’ $658 million general budget for next school year.

“We want to make sure that every taxpayer dollar possible is spent for student improvement,” English said after the vote.

Safeguards will be put in place to ensure Carstarphen isn’t beholden to private donors, he said.

Donations would be held by the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, an organization that supports philanthropic work in the region, before being distributed to Carstarphen and her team. About $40,000 in external money has been raised separately through the Community Foundation to fund the school board’s professional development, English has said previously.

“We definitely want to make sure folks know where the ultimate responsibility lies and that there are no strings attached,” he said.

Carstarphen will be paid a daily rate in line with her previous $283,000 salary as superintendent in Austin, Texas, English said. Her last day in Austin was April 22. The rest of the contributions will compensate her transition team for their work and expenses.

She’ll work with Superintendent Erroll Davis during the transition period before she becomes superintendent July 7. Once she’s solely in charge, she’ll earn a $375,000 base salary.

Until then, Carstarphen will recruit her senior leadership team, work with Davis to hire school principals, learn about Atlanta Public Schools and collaborate with existing staff, board members said.

“We are talking about transforming Atlanta Public Schools,” said board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown. “She is ready to work and ready to make positive changes for kids.”

Carstarphen met with the board Monday and Tuesday during a retreat at the High Museum of Art, where they discussed their goals and working relationships. They didn’t set priorities, but they talked about efforts such as raising the city’s 59 percent graduation rate, improving pathways toward college and giving school principals more authority, English said.

“I’ve never been around someone who thinks so deeply about what can happen,” said board member Leslie Grant.

By Mark Niesse
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution


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APS superintendent transition

APS superintendent transition to start soon – Board of Education to meet to approve funds for transition team – extenal sources sought – Why?

The Atlanta Public Schools announced that a Special Legislative meeting will be held today at 5:15 p.m. to consider – and likely approve – a resolution to establish a transition team for the new superintendent Dr. Meria J. Carstarphen who will officially start on July 7th.

The meeting will be held at the High Museum of Art Hill Auditorium at 1280 Peachtree Street NE, Atlanta, GA 30309. The Special Legislative meeting will follow the Board training sessions that were held yesterday and today at the High Museum.

The AJC reports that (see here),

The Atlanta school board plans to approve a resolution Tuesday that would allow Carstarphen to recruit a transition team and begin readying the school system for her official arrival July 7

[Board Chair Courtney] English said Monday he intends to raise between $500,000 and $1 million from business and philanthropic organizations to compensate Carstarphen and her transition team.  

Carstarphen would be able to begin working immediately after the resolution is approved.

First, let me say that it is a good thing to establish a transition team now. It will allow Carstarphen to spend the next nine weeks getting up to speed on the status of APS and to identify and begin making changes to how APS operates.

However, I am a bit disconcerted by the funding mechanism. Why is it necessary to raise funds from business and other organizations to establish the transition effort?

Let’s look at a brief history of prior offers of funding. Last year private donors offered to fund the search effort for the new superintendent. The Board (while it had a different composition) declined. Then Mayor Reed announced that certain donors had offered to supplement the new superintendent’s salary with up to $300 thousand per year (see here). The Board seems to have declined that offer as well.

In both instances, I believe the Board did the right thing and refused to accept contributions from outside sources that might have ‘strings’ attached. It is also important to note that, as a routine matter, APS accepts donations for many different reasons – but they always are for specific educational purposes.

So what is different now?

In my view – nothing has changed. Establishing a transition team is perfectly sensible – and it is a school administrative expense that the Board should pay for out of operating funds. Additionally, if paid directly by APS, then the activities of the transition plan will remain transparent to the community. However, private funding could result in a process that is not so transparent.

If $1 million can be raised – wonderful – but put it towards improving educational outcomes.

The history of outside influence on APS is checkered enough and one small part of restoring faith in APS requires that they maintain their independence from external groups.

There is absolutely no reason to start off Carstarphen’s tenure with a ‘cloud’ of external influence on the horizon.

Robert Stockwell is the financial watchdog for APS and posts at Financial Deconstruction

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Downtown Office Euphemism

We will get better answers by changing how we ask the question – and then get to better solutions

The term “downtown office cost” is often used as a euphemism for all the personnel in APS serving in administrative functions. However, not all administrative personnel are located at the downtown CLL office and where these personnel actually sit is not really relevant.

However, when the administration is asked about the cost and number of personnel, they respond by generally focusing only on the individuals who have desks at the downtown CLL office. And while their answers are technically correct (sometimes), their focus on personnel sitting in the CLL building in downtown Atlanta often results in confusion regarding how many administrators actually work for APS.

To illustrate this, let’s look at a couple of examples.

If the entire Finance Department were to move from the CLL to another building (maybe even to an underutilized school building), we would not say that the general administrative cost had decreased. However, the administration would be correct in saying the employee costs associated with the “downtown CLL building” had gone down. There is a big difference between the two.

Conversely, take the example of a specialist teacher that has responsibilities in multiple schools and spends most of their time in the field. Let’s say that this teacher was transferred to a desk at the CLL because it was more efficient to be there. While it would be correct to say that the employee cost of the CLL building had gone up, the fact of the matter is that the cost of general and administrative functions had not changed by a dime.

My suggestion is that when you are addressing this issue, use the term “centralized school and general administration costs” and avoid the “downtown office” euphemism. By changing how you ask the question, the issue of where the desk is located is taken out of the equation and places the focus on the number of administrative personnel across the district.

The charts below present the answers that are important to the discussion.

FY15 admin staffing and salaries 042815

The staffing increases have already been the subject of prior posts (see here and here). The chart at the bottom shows the salary for these departments after adjusting FY14 for the Vacancy Management savings that never occurred as there was no mechanism to track it. After making this adjustment you can see that average salaries have essentially stayed the same. However, salaries in total are up by 4.0% due to the staffing additions.

I think it is interesting to note that only one department continues to work to drive costs down and become more efficient. Finance has consistently worked to reduce staffing cost for the last several years and did so again this year. Over the last two years, Finance has reduced staffing by 4.2%.

If the other administrative departments had followed their lead, instead of increasing by 13 in FY15, the personnel would have been reduced by 15 positions from FY13 levels to 330. In other words, if the staffing had simply remained at FY13 levels, the total would have been 345 – with efficiency improvements, the staff should have been brought down to 330.

Given that these incremental administrative staff cost $3.2 million for salaries and benefits, my sense is that a better use could have been easily found for these resources.

As the discussion on average class sizes begins to heat up over the next several weeks, remember the $3.2 million number as the “unacceptably high cost” of reducing class sizes is discussed. The same goes for “there is not another dime in administration costs that can be cut”.

Robert Stockwell is the financial watchdog for APS and posts at Financial Deconstruction

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Round-Up of APS Headlines from the Past Week

APS News

*** FY15 APS Budget

*** CCRPI Report

*** Special Needs Students Abuse Case

*** Coan/Kennedy School Merger

*** Other APS News

Board of Education, Committee Meetings and Public Forums

*** Board of Education meeting held on Tuesday, April 22

Non-APS News and Opinion of Interest

Robert Stockwell is the financial watchdog for APS and posts at Financial Deconstruction

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Election brought rapid change to Atlanta school board

When voters replaced most of Atlanta’s school board in last fall’s election, they wanted fresh representatives who could leave behind cheating scandals and squabbles that divided the old board.

Now more than 100 days into its four-year term, the revamped school board has unified around a common agenda promised during the campaign, although its goal of spending more money in schools and less on administration remains largely unfulfilled so far.

Board members have hired a superintendent, given teachers a raise and eliminated furlough days. They’ve held dozens of community meetings with parent groups and worked full-time hours at near minimum-wage pay.

When they’ve disagreed over class sizes and spending, their differences haven’t devolved into the kind of factionalism that drew scrutiny from the school system’s accrediting body in 2011.

“We’re continuing to right the ship and build a foundation for success,” said Courtney English, the school board’s 28-year-old chairman. “People overwhelmingly wanted a board that got along, that worked through its issues in an adult fashion and arrived at solutions that benefited all students across the district.”

The board, with six newly elected members out of nine seats, took office Jan. 13 and marked its 100th day in office Tuesday, the same day it approved a $658 million budget. Passing the budget in April rather than at the end of June, which is when it was finished last year, will allow the school district to compete with surrounding school systems to hire teachers when they’re most likely to be looking for jobs.

The election made a difference, said Richard Quartarone, president of Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools.

“I was skeptical, but I’m happy they’re doing the best they can and agonizing over difficult decisions,” he said. “They’re taking everyone’s perspective into consideration, not just a few parents or one principal or a couple of teachers.”

The previous board earned a reputation as a rubber stamp for then-Superintendent Beverly Hall and as an opponent to Superintendent Erroll Davis during last year’s budget discussions, but current board members said they’ve confined themselves to their policy-setting role.

For example, the board didn’t bow to pressure from some parents who wanted to stop Davis, who is retiring this summer, from replacing principals at several schools before next year. By comparison, the previous board last fall rejected Davis’ decision to promote North Atlanta High School Principal Howard “Gene” Taylor to a regional director position after Taylor threatened to resign. Taylor announced last week he won’t return as the school’s principal next year.

Board members, whose salaries are about $15,000 each, have been more active in other ways this year, with committees formed to decide the future of charter schools in the city, shore up a pension plan with a $550 million unfunded liability and coordinate superintendent evaluations.

“The biggest challenge has been turning around some of the negatives that have been with the district for so long,” said board member Eshe Collins, referring to the stain of widespread cheating on standardized tests in 2009. “We’re trying to get people to turn that sense of fear into a sense of optimism and hope that this is a new era.”

By hiring their choice for superintendent, Meria Carstarphen, the board ensured they’ll work with a leader who shares their priorities to spend more money directly on student instruction, distribute resources more evenly between schools in poor and wealthy neighborhoods, and raise the school system’s 59 percent graduation rate.

The board has a lot of work ahead before making those efforts a reality.

“I knew this was a big job, but even I didn’t know how much we have to do,” said board member Cynthia Briscoe Brown, who said her board duties require between 40 and 50 hours of work each week in addition to her day job as an attorney. “This is the most significant job I’ve ever had.”

By Mark Niesse
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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APS Administrators Blow

APS administrators becoming less efficient while increasing teacher workloads

In the face of a declining traditional school student enrollment and a reduced teacher workforce, the number of administrators is increasing. And what is the result? Based on the data over the last two years and the approved budget for FY15, the workload trends for teachers is going up while the workload for administrators – as measured by the number of personnel they support – is coming down.

The chart below (click to enlarge) identifies the staffing numbers for all administrative functions in APS that are accounted for in the General Fund.

FY15 Admin staffing 042514

With this information, we can then begin to see the trends in how the workload is being distributed.

First, the average number of students per teacher is going up – not dramatically, but up 2.2% in the last two years. Obviously, this trend is counter to the desire by the Board to reduce average class sizes. But it also tells us that the workload carried by a teacher is increasing.

And while it is clear that the number of administrators is rising, it is troubling to see that the number of people they are supporting is coming down. This indicates that instead of getting more efficient, the administrative functions are getting less efficient in the conduct of their responsibilities.

As you can see, the number of teachers is down 79 as compared to last year and down 127 over two years. However, the number of central office school administrators is going up and, as a result, the number of teachers supported per central office school administrator is coming down. Over two years this has decreased by 2.9 or 7.7%. Again, this indicates that the workload for central school administrators is decreasing while the workload for teachers is increasing.

The case is also the same for General & Administrative staff. Their functions support all of the staff in the district and their workload – as measured by the number of non-G&A staff they support – is coming down as well. In FY13, each G&A staff supported 18.5 district personnel – in FY15 the number of personnel has come down to 16.9, or an 8.9% decrease. This is a strong indication that the efficiency of the G&A staff is declining.

Teacher workloads are up and administrative function workloads are down. This is not an indication of an improving and more efficient group of administrators.

It is time to radically change the trends and to focus the staffing where it counts the most – not into administrative functions – but into direct instruction where they have a chance to improve educational outcomes.

Robert Stockwell is the financial watchdog for APS and posts at Financial Deconstruction

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APS Superintendent contract includes perks

On top of her $375,000 base salary, incoming Atlanta Superintendent Meria Carstarphen will receive a fully furnished home office, $2,000 monthly for expenses, and supplemental retirement contributions, according to a copy of her employment contract obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Wednesday.

She’ll also receive annual raises of at least 2 percent, insurance stipends to offset health expenses, and reimbursement for moving and temporary housing expenses.

The 20-page contract, provided by Atlanta Public Schools after an open records request, calls for Carstarphen to take leadership of the 50,000-student school district July 7. She’ll replace Superintendent Erroll Davis, who was paid $258,837 in the 2012-2013 school year and plans to retire this summer.

The three-year contract represents a significant raise for Carstarphen, who was paid $283,412 in the 2012-2013 school year as the superintendent of the Austin, Texas, school district.

Her salary, a $1,200 monthly automobile allowance and $800 per month for expenses were previously disclosed when the Atlanta Board of Education voted unanimously to hire her April 14, but additional perks were revealed with the release of her contract Wednesday:

  • Reimbursement for a desktop computer, laptop, cellphone, tablet, printer, fax machine and Internet access in her home.
  • A monthly stipend for out-of-pocket premiums for medical, vision, dental, disability and life insurance. An annual physical exam will also be paid for.
  • Twenty days of annual vacation, plus an additional 20 days that shall accrue annually. Up to 30 vacation days may be carried forward from year to year.
  • A contribution in the amount of 10 percent of Carstarphen’s salary to a tax-sheltered annuity plan, 403(b) plan or other retirement savings plans. The first contribution will be made Jan. 1, 2015, and Carstarphen will be 100 percent vested in the plan.
  • Membership in the Teachers Retirement System of Georgia, with Carstarphen’s contributions covered by the school system.
  • Payment of membership fees in the American Association of School Administrators, the Georgia School Superintendents Association, the Council of Great City Schools, Georgia Association of Educational Leaders and other professional groups the superintendent deems necessary.

Metro Atlanta 2013 superintendent salaries
Erroll Davis, Atlanta, $258,837
Michael Hinojosa, Cobb County, $247,625
Michael Thurmond, DeKalb County, $275,000
Robert Avossa, Fulton County, $315,587
J. Alvin Wilbanks, Gwinnett County, $503,623

By Mark Niesse
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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